The thought of a stranger determining who makes decisions and cares for their child on any given day is one of the most terrifying for any parent, yet that is what happens when a judge determines custody.
Judges consider their role in determining custody arrangements as one of the most critical decisions they face as a judge. Accordingly, a judge’s paramount concern will be what custody arrangement is in the best interests of the child. But what does the best interest of the child standard include?
Think of the best interest of the child as the goal that many other factors help the judge reach. Maryland judges acknowledge that no single list of factors will satisfy every case because each case is unique. After all, each child and their relationship with their parents is unique. However, legally recognized major factors guide judges in their subjective evaluation of custody cases. Those major factors that a judge will consider include the following: the fitness of the parents; the character and reputation of the parties; the desires of the parents and any agreements between them; preference of the child if the child is of a suitable age; material opportunities affecting the future life of the child; the age, health, and gender of the child; the residences of the parents and opportunities for visitation; length of the child’s separation from either parent; and any prior voluntary abandonment or surrender of custody of the child.
Judges will consider even more factors in determining whether joint custody is in the best interest of the child.
Those factors are the capacity of the parents to communicate and reach shared decisions affecting the child’s welfare; the strength of the relationship between the child and each parent; any potential disruption of the child’s social life and schooling; the demands of parental employment; the financial status of each parent; and any other factors that the judge considers relevant.
While these factors seem overwhelming and do not even encompass everything the judge will consider in its custody determination, the judge is trying to recognize, evaluate, and honor the many different aspects of the relationship between parent and child.
Here are some things to keep in mind when considering how a judge will determine custody:
- The judge will not consider any one factor more important than all the others combined. For example, the judge will not award custody to one parent solely based on their age and health; instead, the judge will examine the totality of each parent’s situation to ensure your child’s wellbeing is most protected.
- The judge will usually attempt to preserve your child’s regular routine as much as possible. This includes not only living arrangements and schooling but also access to extended family members, extracurricular activities, and friends. The judge wants any negative impact of their decision to be as minimal as possible.
- The judge understands that separation and litigation can cause tension between parents that may affect their current ability to communicate and agree on what is best for the child. Therefore, the judge will look at the past “track record” of the parents’ ability to communicate and willingness to cooperate in making decisions for their child. The judge will be trying to figure out whether the current tension between the parents is temporary or whether it has been going on for a long time.
- The judge will decide both legal and physical custody. Legal custody is the right to make major decisions about the child, such as education or religion. Physical custody is the right to provide the child a home and make decisions that affect the child’s daily life while they are in that parent’s home.
- Custody can always be modified if it is in the child’s best interest and if there has been a material change in circumstances that affects the child’s welfare. The law requires the change in circumstances to be significant because the judge wants as much stability as possible for the child.
Having a judge determine custody of your child can be emotionally daunting. Both you and your child’s other parent will have strong convictions about what is best for your child. It is important not to let those emotions and convictions negatively impact your child or your relationship with your child. An experienced family law attorney will be able to help you prepare for, and navigate through, the judge’s process in determining custody of your child.
Founded in 1998 in downtown Silver Spring, Maryland, Andalman & Flynn has forged a distinguished reputation for legal excellence. The Firm practices family law, estate planning, and probate throughout Maryland and the District of Columbia, and represents individuals seeking disability benefits throughout the country. The Firm focuses on cases that impact the rights of everyone, and are there for clients when responsive legal help is most critical. The Firm has provided legal analysis on national and local television and radio, and their attorneys often testify before legislative bodies and are routinely invited to contribute to prominent legal publications. For more information about Andalman & Flynn, please visit the website at andalmanflynn.com or call 301.563.6685.